(17) Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.”
(18) So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds …
(17) By way of the land of the Philistines: That is, along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
Although it was nearer; for God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt”: The Israelites, had they taken the shorter road, would have arrived in Canaan much sooner. But as they were still burdened by their own slave mentality, they were not ready for war, and upon finding themselves in such a war with the residents of Canaan they might have quickly become dispirited and wanted to return to Egypt, where they had lived under oppression, but nevertheless protected by their masters.
Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them: The word NaCHaM, “lead them,” echoes the word yiNaCHeM, “have a change of heart,” that appears later in this verse. In terms of their respective grammatical roots these words are different. In the former case, the verbal root is N-W-CH, the final M being only a suffix (indicating the third-person plural direct object, “them”). But in the latter case, the root, N-CH-M, includes the final M itself.
Nonetheless, the commonality of the two words is sufficiently striking that we cannot deem their appearance here in such close proximity a mere coincidence. Rather, the Torah is deliberately drawing a connection that is to be understood as imparting an additional meaning to this verse. That is, the word NaCHaM, “lead them,” acquires a shade of the meaning also of N-CH-M, the root of yiNaCHeM, “have a change of heart.”
We have already analyzed in considerable detail the Hebrew root N-CH-M and its derivatives in our coverage of the story of the Flood, in which this concept plays a central role (see Bible Dynamics on Genesis. Ch. 7). As noted there, N-CH-M means to console oneself, to reconcile with reality and with the fact that reality is not as ideal as we would like, to revise one’s prior plans and expectations.
In this case, with respect to God’s actions after the Exodus, we understand this to mean that by leading the Jews along a different path because of their fear of war, God too “revised His previous plan.”
For God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt”: Thus, the close associative connection between ve-lo nacham Elohim, “God did not lead them,” and pen yinachem ha’am, “the people may have a change of heart,” emphasizes that God’s actions are a direct and immediate consequence of the state of the Jewish people.
(18) So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds: He led them not directly, but in a roundabout way – not directly to Canaan, but through the wilderness, where the Torah would be given.
Thus, the original plan was to lead the Jews directly to the Land of Israel, but that plan had to be revised, because the Jews were not yet ready to wage war, and so God led the Jews through the wilderness instead. However, the Jews received the Torah in the Sinai wilderness (19:1), and Tradition sees special meaning in that the Torah was given and received in the wilderness specifically. Thus, the journey through the wilderness, and the giving of the Torah there “in the form of legislation” was a decision made post facto, and only by force of circumstance.
As explained earlier, the original plan was for the Jews to remain enslaved in Egypt for 430 years, but because the people proved incapable of enduring such an ordeal, the interval was reduced by more than half, to 210 years. For that same reason yetziat mizrayim (“the Exodus from Egypt” – but literally, “the exodus of Egypt,” meaning: Egypt’s own exodus from spiritual slavery to freedom, and to a dialogue with God) did not take place on the grand scale on which it had been originally conceived. Only a relatively small group of Egyptians joined forces with the Jews and left Egypt with them, while the rest remained behind, and were not liberated from the “house of bondage.”
The unpreparedness of the Jews to do battle with the Philistines can be attributed to this “incompleteness of the Exodus” – the relatively limited forces that left Egypt. Likewise, the change in God’s plans as indicated in these verses can be seen as brought about by those same factors.
The Divine plan as originally conceived was to bring the Jews out of Egypt “with all of Egypt,” i.e., with a sizeable and developmentally advanced segment of its population, and, moreover, to bring the Jews (and those who had joined with them) immediately to the Land of Israel, and not to Mount Sinai.
But because the Jews would never have survived the full 430 years of slavery as planned, the Exodus occurred “prematurely.” The result was that they left Egypt in relatively small numbers, because they left the majority of the Egyptians behind. In view of this, they were not ready for war, and the plan had to be changed to lead them on a different, longer road. This is what we mean when we say that the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai occurred by force of circumstance, and was not an event actually planned as such.
That the Divine teachings had to be formulated as law (even if it was Divine law) was an outcome that fell well short of the ideal. The ideal was that the entire people would experience the Torah as something entirely natural and self-evident, just as the Patriarchs experienced it.
Had the Jews received the massive, full support of the entire Egyptian nation (which means that even before leaving Egypt they would have ceased to be slaves there, because all of Egypt would have already changed), then attaining the ideal just described would have been possible. But when slaves are liberated directly from slavery, there is no getting away from the need to impose on them strict (even harsh) laws. The ideal of a “self-evident Torah” was neither annulled nor abolished; it was only postponed until the Messianic era. Meanwhile, there was no choice but for the Law to be given to the people, and for the people to receive the Law.
By all appearances, God’s change of plan occurred not at the moment of the Exodus, but eighty years earlier, when He sent Moses to be raised in Pharaoh’s place, in order to acquire and assimilate the principles of Egyptian political structure and government. By virtue of that upbringing, Moses understands that the life of the people must be regulated by legislation, which means that Moses’ orientation closely corresponds to the ethos of the Sinai covenant (as we have previously discussed in considerable detail).
This by no means implies that the larger world has no need for the Torah, or that its laws were nothing more than the result of a circumstantial afterthought. The principles of the Torah are of course primordial in their origins; they are a sine qua non for the existence of the world, even to the extent that the Torah actually predates the existence of the world (as the Midrash puts it, “God looked into the Torah and created the universe”).
Be that as it may, the Torah was framed at the Exodus into an ordered code of laws precisely because the exodus from Egypt took place too early. The Jewish nation at that time was not capable (as, indeed, even today it is not capable) of comprehending “intuitively Divine teachings that are based on ideals,” in the manner that the Patriarchs understood those teachings.
 In particular, the need to counter the Israelite slave mentality is one of the reasons that the Torah prescribes the death penalty so often, often for violations that seem incomprehensible to modern man.